Vegetarian Ideal

Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
- Albert Einstein

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The psychology of spiritualism: science and seances
Séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872 from the Eugène Rochas Papers held at the American Philosophical Society Library.

Date: 1872

The idea of summoning the spirits took a thrilling hold of the Victorian imagination – and has its adherents now. But the psychology behind spiritualism is even more intriguing

As the evenings get darker and the first hint of winter hangs in the air, the western world enters the season of the dead.  It begins with Halloween, continues with All Saints' and All Souls' days, runs through Bonfire Night – the evening where the English burn effigies of historical terrorists – and ends with Remembrance Day. And through it all, Britain's mediums enjoy one of their busiest times of the year.

People who claim to contact the spirit world provoke extreme reactions.
For some, mediums offer comfort and mystery in a dull world. For others they are fraudsters or unwitting fakes, exploiting the vulnerable and bereaved. But to a small group of psychologists, the rituals of the seance and the medium are opening up insights into the mind, shedding light on the power of suggestion and even questioning the nature of free will.

Humanity has been attempting to commune with the dead since ancient times.
As far back as Leviticus, the Old Testament God actively forbade people to seek out mediums. Interest peaked in the 19th century, a time when religion and rationality were clashing like never before. In an era of unprecedented scientific discovery, some churchgoers began to seek evidence for their beliefs.

Salvation came from two American sisters, 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Margaret Fox. On 31 March 1848, the girls announced they were going to contact the spirit world. To the astonishment of their parents they got a reply. That night, the Fox sisters chatted to a ghost haunting their New York State home, using a code of one tap for yes, two gaps for no. Word spread and soon the girls were demonstrating their skills to 400 locals in the town hall.

Within months a new religion had emerged – spiritualisma mixture of liberal, nonconformist values and fireside chats with dead people. Spiritualism attracted some of the great thinkers of the day – including biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent his latter years promoting spiritualism in between knocking out Sherlock Holmes stories. Even the admission of the Fox sisters in 1888 that they had faked it all failed to crush the movement. Today spiritualism thrives in more than 350 churches in Britain.

The tricks and techniques used by mediums have been exposed many times by people such as James Randi, Derren Brown and Jon Dennis, creator of the Bad Pyschics website.

Last week I spent 40 minutes with a telephone spiritualist who passed on messages from four dead people. Like all mediums, she was skilled at cold reading – the use of probable guesses and picking up of cues to steer her in the right direction. If she hit a dud – the suggestion that she was in the presence of a 40-year-old uncle of mine – she quickly widened it out. The 40-year-old became an older person who felt young at heart. And then someone who was more of an uncle figure. She was also skilled at the Barnum effect – the use of statements that tend to be true for everyone.

Among dozens of guesses and misses, there was just one hit – the correct name of a dead relative. Their relation to me was utterly wrong, as were details of their health. But the name was right and, even though it was a common name among that person's generation, it was a briefly chilling moment.

Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and magician, says my response to this lucky guess is typical. People tend to remember the correct details in a seance but overlook statements or events that provide no evidence of paranormal powers.

Wiseman's work has also shown that
 we are all extremely susceptible to the power of suggestion. With colleague Andy Nyman, co-creator of Derren Brown's television illusions, Wiseman used contemporary descriptions of Victorian seances to recreate an encounter with spirits in a disused prison. Over eight seances involving 152 people, volunteers sat around a table in the dark holding hands while luminous painted bells, balls and maracas moved before their eyes. Surveyed afterwards, a fifth of the volunteers believed they had witnessed the paranormal.

"These things are often very simple," says Wiseman, author of Paranormality. "We had a man creeping around with a stick. We thought when we read the original accounts of how seances were carried out that they wouldn't fool anyone. We were wrong. A lot this is do with framing. Once you think you have an explanation for an event you don't have any other ones. Once you think it's a spirit you don't look for another explanation."

During the seance, Nyman, taking the role of the medium, announced that the spirit would raise the table. Soon afterwards he encouraged the spirit by saying "lift the table higher" and "the table is moving now". Two weeks later a third of the participants recalled wrongly that the table had moved.

"Suggestion builds over time. If you ask people immediately after the event it is not so effective. You don't want to solidify the memory immediately after the event," says Wiseman.

The trappings of the seance increase its success. Holding hands prevents participants from disrupting the trickery. Darkness increases sensitivity to sound and movement and makes people more scared – which may, Wiseman says, increase susceptibility.

The seance can be explained by stage magic and human frailty. But what about phenomena such as table tipping and Ouija boards?

Table tipping, or turning, has gone out of fashion but is easy to replicate with four or more people, a small table, dim lights and a relaxed atmosphere. The group place hands on the table and wait. After 40 minutes or so the table should start to move. It soon appears to have a mind of its own, sliding, swaying and even pinning people to the walls.

The reason why household furniture can appear to be possessed was exposed more than 160 years ago by Michael Faraday, the discoverer of the link between magnetism and electricity. In 1852 Faraday was fascinated by the new craze of table tipping – and whether people or spirits were responsible. So he took bundles of cardboard roughly the size of a table top and glued them weakly together. Each sheet got progressively smaller from top to bottom, allowing Faraday to mark their original positions on the card above with a pencil. He then placed the cards on a table and asked volunteers to put their hands on the cards and let the spirits move the table to the left.

This experiment allowed Faraday to see what was moving the table. If it was spirits, the table top would slide out the cards from the bottom up. But if the participants were doing it, the top cards would be the first to move. By examining the position of the pencil marks Faraday showed that people, not spirits, moved the table. He had demonstrated the ideomotor response, the movement of muscles independent of deliberate thought. This also explains table tipping's sophisticated big brother, the Ouija board.

In a Ouija seance participants place fingers on a glass on a table surrounded by letters and watch as it eerily moves – and occasionally spells out words. Psychologist Susan Blackmore is best known as the proponent of memes, but early in her career she was a parapsychologist. At Oxford she ran the student Psychical Research Society, carrying out experiments using Ouija boards. Time and again the glass spelled words and sentences. Her confidence began to be shaken when she modified the board.

"We turned the letters upside down because surely spirits should see the letters underneath," says Blackmore, now a sceptic. "And of course it spelt out rubbish. It cannot work unless all the people can see what is going on."

The ideomotor effect is also at play with the glass. "With a Oujia board, your arm is getting tired and your ability to judge the location of your finger is compromised," says Blackmore. "When the glass moves you naturally adjust your movements and go along with the glass. To start with it moves hesitantly, but after a while as soon as it starts moving everyone's hand follows.'

But what about the glass's ability to spell? That was investigated by the American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in the 1890s. He used a device called the automatograph made of two glass plates separated by brass balls. Any involuntary movement of hands placed on the top plate causes it to move. The movement is recorded by a pencil attached to the device.

When Jastrow asked volunteers to imagine looking at an object in the room the automatograph revealed that their hands involuntarily moved in that direction. Just visualising the door was enough for the hands to drift towards it.

And that's what's happening with a Ouija board. If the participants look at a particular letter – because they expect it to follow next – they unwittingly nudge the glass towards it.

If the Ouija board has shed light on unwitting movement, then another technique, channelling of spirits, has questioned free will.

Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner, who died this year, is best known for his work on the rebound effect. Tell someone not to think about white bears and they immediately think about white bears. The more we try to actively suppress a thought, the less likely we are to succeed. But he also investigated automatic writing, where people claim to write without being aware what they are doing.

The most famous automatic writer was Pearl Curran, an American who knocked out more than 5,000 poems, novels and plays while claiming to be channelling the spirit of Patience Worth, a 17th-century Englishwoman.

Automatic writing has traditionally been explained as the action of the subconscious mind. But Wegner argued that the reason lay in the illusion of free will. Most people have a sense of their inner you – the conscious self that makes decisions about day-to-day life. According to Wegner this sense is an illusion. There's evidence to back up this seemingly unlikely idea.

In the 1960s, neurophysiologist William Grey Walter got volunteers to operate a slide projector while their brain was monitored with electrodes. The participants were told to press a button to change slides. But the button was a fake – the projector was controlled by electrical activity in the brain. The startled volunteers found that the slide machine was predicting their decisions. A fraction of a second before they decided to press the button, the part of the brain responsible for hand movement burst into activity and – through the electrodes – moved the slide on.

Grey Walter showed that there was a fraction of a second delay between the brain making a decision and someone being aware that they were making a decision.

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libert of the University of California , San Francisco, made a similar discovery after attaching volunteers to electrical monitors and sitting them in front of a screen displaying a dot in a circle. The participants were told to flex their wrists whenever they liked, and report the position of the dots at the moment they made the decision to flex. Again, there was a surge in brain activity a fraction of a second before the volunteers were aware they were making a decision.

Wegner's solution was that our deliberate, thinking brain – the inner me that makes decisions – is an illusion
Instead, the brain does two things when it makes a decision to raise an arm. 
First it passes a message to the part in charge of creating the conscious inner you. 
Second, it delays the signal going to the arm by a fraction of a second. This delay generates the illusion that the conscious mind has made a decision.

Wegner argued that automatic writing occurs when something goes wrong with this process. The brain sends the signal to the arm to write – but fails to alert the inner you.

There's something a little ironic about his conclusion. The early spiritualists believed they were shedding light on the transition of the human spirit from the physical body to the afterlife. Wegner suggests that it's not just the distinction between mind and body that is false, but the whole concept of the "conscious" decision-making mind is just another piece of trickery played by the brain.

And meanwhile, 150 years after Faraday showed that table tipping was hokum, we continue to frighten one another in the dark.

'What is remarkable is that the stuff written in books 100 years ago still works,' says Richard Wiseman. 'If you think of all the technology and science and education and yet a group of people sitting in the dark can scare the living daylights out of themselves.'

    Social history

David Derbyshire © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.


Oldest Buddhist shrine found at Buddha's birthplace

Oldest Buddhist shrine found at Buddha's birthplace

A shrine consistent with the story of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha, has been uncovered within a temple reportedly built at his birthplace. 


Saturday, November 23, 2013


Wisdom of India

What India Can Teach The Rest Of The World About Living Well

The Huffington Post  |  By Carolyn Gregoire Posted:   |  Updated: 11/12/2013 11:51 am EST
India has been described by some traditional texts as Sa Prathama Sanskrati Vishvavara, the first and supreme culture in the world. To this day, the South Asian country remains a hotspring of ancient wisdom on mind-body health and spirituality.

This wisdom has been steadily permeating American life for the past century. Mindfulness -- the cultivation of a focused awareness on the present moment, a concept with origins in ancient Indian philosophy -- is "gaining its fair share of attention" in the West, with increasing numbers of Americans practicing meditation, according to a recent New York Times Magazine cover story.   Words like "guru," "karma" "nirvana" and "om" are firmly situated in our cultural vocabulary, and yoga and meditation have become the favorite pasttime of everyone from supermodels to high-powered CEOs.

The Indian way has spread far beyond the U.S., and tourists from around the world are flocking to the densely-populated country in search of inner peace. India is the fastest-growing destination for wellness tourism, with an average of 22 percent annual growth, according to recent data from Stanford Research Center funded by Spafinder Wellness.

Here are 10 reasons we should look to India as an example of what it means to live well.

It's the birthplace of yoga.
Arguably India's most popular export, yoga (Sanskrit for "divine union") has been passed down from guru to student for many centuries. Traditionally, yoga is practiced with the goal of stilling the thoughts of the unruly mind so that the individual can eventually achieve moksha (liberation). Aside from yoga's spiritual aims, the physical and mental health benefits of the practice are extensive, from decreased anxiety to reduced neck and lower back pain to increased sexual function.

They view health from a holistic perspective.
The ancient Indian wisdom system of ayurveda is founded on two guiding principles: 1) that the mind and body are inextricably linked, and 2) that the mind has more power than anything else to heal and transform the body, according to The Chopra Center.
This Indian "science of life" has used natural remedies to treat a wide variety of physical ailments for centuries, and modern science is just beginning to catch on to its wisdom. Through dietary and lifestyle changes, ayurvedic principles are used to prevent and treat illnesses, and to help individuals achieve optimal health and well-being.

They embrace vegetarianism.
india vegetables
An estimated 80 percent of India's population identifies as Hindu, and the traditional Hindu diet is vegetarian. In the traditional yogic text the Mahabharata, a vegetarian diet is said to be sattvic -- meaning that it is linked with purity, goodness, and enlightenment.
"The practitioner of yoga has to adopt a vegetarian diet in order to attain one-pointed evolution and spiritual evolution," master practitioner B.K.S. Iyengar writes in "Light On Yoga."
Additionally, a vegetarian diet has been linked with major health benefits, including increased longevity and a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

They have strong family values.
india family
In Indian culture, there is a strong emphasis on family as the primary social unit, and families tend to be large, providing a strong social support system and network of community ties (a key factor in longevity). Indian families often live together in multi-generational "joint family" units.
"Through a multitude of kinship ties, each person is linked with kin in villages and towns near and far," according to the Asia Society. "Almost everywhere a person goes, he can find a relative from whom he can expect moral and practical support."

They cook with turmeric.
india spices
Turmeric is a popular spice in Indian cooking, and it's a superfood that can boost longevity and ward off illness. The spice has long been used medicinally in the Chinese and Indian traditions, and for good reason: Turmeric is packed with anti-inflammatory properties, and is also anti-carcinogenic, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. Plus, it makes a delicious (and colorful) curry.

They're making low-cost health innovations.
india hospital
Although the Indian health care system is often criticized (and is certainly an overburdened system), some Indian institutions have succeed in creating a model for good-quality health care at a low cost.
"U.S. hospitals would do well to take a leaf or two from the book of Indian doctors and hospitals that are treating problems of the eye, heart, and kidney all the way to maternity care, orthopedics, and cancer for less than 5% to 10% of U.S. costs," Vijay Govindarajan and Ravi Ramamurti write in a recent Harvard Business Review blog, explaining that the Indian hospitals they studied still met international care standards.
Low cost, in this case, doesn't mean low quality -- Govindarajan and Ramamurti argue that because patients pay 60-70 percent of health care costs out of pocket, Indian hospitals have had to cut costs while also improving their standard of care, doing so through task shifting, frugality, and a "hub-and-spoke" model of dispersement. More and more Indian corporations are also joining the fight to provide good quality, affordable health care.

They live in color.
india silk
Every year, India celebrates the arrival of spring with Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colors, which ushers in the season with singing, dancing, and bright colors.
Many visitors to India (sometimes called the "land of color") are taken with the bright, beautiful colors everywhere. Many of these colors are symbolic in the culture and in the Hindu tradition -- and according to some color experts, these bright hues may have a positive effect on mood.

They have a culture that prizes compassion.
india poverty
Compassion is a traditional Indian value, and also central to Buddhism, which espouses a philosophy of compassion balanced by wisdom.
In Indian culture today, there is also a belief in karma. According to the law of karma, every action must have a reaction, and every individual reaps what he sows. In the yoga tradition, karma yoga, the path of selfless action and selfless ervice, is one path to liberation.
"Once you become selfless you are free from attachments," wrote Swami Rama, explaining that one can achieve freedom from both the laws of karma and from mental confusion.

They know that breathing is crucial to good health.
calm down
Breathing is a critical aspect of good health that's frequently overlooked in Western cultures, where we tend to focus more on the role of food and diet in preventative health care.
For thousands of years, the yogic practice of pranayama (Sanskrit for "extension of the life-force") has been used as a method for reducing stress and healing the body and mind through targeted breathing exercises. In Kundalini yoga, a traditional method of yoga popularized in the West by Yogi Bhajan, the breath is thought to be an individual's connection to the divine within, and breathing exercises are used to connect us more deeply with our own life force.

They celebrate the power of music.
The birth country of the legendary Ravi Shankar -- and the place that "transformed" George Harrison's life -- has produced some of the world's greatest music. In India, music is often a spiritual pursuit. Devotional chanting, also known as kirtan, is thought to be a healing practice.
When the reknowned Indian guru Paramhansa Yogananda performed a kirtan at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1926, the event had a strong impact on the audience.
"For one hour and twenty-five minutes, the thousands of voices of the entire audience a divine atmosphere of joyous praise," Yogananda later recalled. "The next day many men and women testified to the God-perception and the healing of body, mind, and soul that had taken place during the sacred chanting."

They know how to do a memorable tribute.
taj mahal

They value inner wisdom.
india meditation
Indian spirituality, stemming from the teachings of the Vedas, the source of ancient yoga philosophy and the early foundation texts of Hindu and Buddhist faiths, stresses the truth of inwardness. Within the Indian belief system, divinity is to be found by accessing the divine Self (atman) within the self. Liberation can be attained through realizing the unity of atman and brahman (the whole of the universe).

According to "American Veda" author Philip Goldberg, this inward-facing spirituality that has spread out from India is creating radical change in the West. Goldberg told the Huffington Post:  We’re becoming a nation of yogis. What I mean by that is that there are people whose orientation towards life and their orientation towards their spiritual life is very yogic. They may never set foot on a yoga mat, they may never do an asana in their lives. They have a meditation practice and turn inwards in their approach to whatever they define as spiritual –- their relation to the universe and their development of an inner connection to something bigger than themselves. People are taking charge of their spiritual lives in a very yogic way.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How Changing The Way You Think About Death Can Transform The Way You Live

The Huffington Post | By Carolyn Gregoire

Buddhism, Death & Dying, The Third Metric, Zen Buddhism, Buddhism Death, Confronting Death, Dealing With Death, Death, End Of Life Care, Grief, New York Zen Center For Contemplative Care, Healthy Living News

Woody Allen once said, "I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there whenit happens." And the sentiment isn't uncommon. Many of us living in western cultures have conditioned ourselves to deal with the reality of death by not dealing with it at all -– not just fearing it, but avoiding the subject entirely.

But changing the way that we think about death can empower us to live more meaningfully in the here and now, according to Koshin Paley Ellison, Buddhist monk and co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, a meditation center, end-of-life guesthouse and educational facility in Manhattan.

Here are five Buddhism-inspired insights about death that can transform the way you live your life.

Life and death are part of a single whole.

In the Zen tradition, living and dying is happening in each moment -- the inhale is life, and the exhale is death. "The in breath is the first thing we do when we come into this world, and the last thing we do before death is exhale," Koshin tells the Huffington Post.

Buddhism celebrates the cycle of life and death as one, a teaching embodied by Van Gogh's sunflowers. Portrayed in various stages of bloom and decay, the paintings were created as a meditation on the passage of time.

Disease and death are not shameful.

"There's so much shame in our culture around aging and death," says Koshin. "People themselves when they're aging feel that there's something wrong with them and they're losing value... And I've never met a sick person who didn't say, 'Why has this happened?'"

For many of us, a sense of failure and shame accompanies sickness and death. This is even apparent in the language we use to describe disease (for instance, "He lost his battle to cancer"). According to Koshin, this shame can actually become a way of hiding and avoiding confrontation with the reality of our situation -- it helps us to avoid asking the tough questions (How am I going to age? How many years do I have left? How will I cope with these changes in my body?).

"We need to get more interested and more curious about how it is to be where we are now," says Koshin.

A distracted life is not a full life.

Koshin tells the story of a monk he knew who would ask himself, "Are you awake?" to make sure he was being present. If we're not focusing on the present moment, says Koshin, "we're living in a kind of dream, which is almost like a death actually. Being caught up in our thoughts and caught up in activity without the enjoyment of activity is like a death."

But being in the present moment -- the essence of zen -- can help us to not only get the most out of our lives, but also to come to an acceptance of death.

"Don't hold back from your life and don't wait," says Koshin. "That's in some ways the heart of what zen is about and what living is about. Live fully in the present moment but not in the idea of the present moment... Some people think that to be present means feeling peaceful, but to be fully in the present moment could mean feeling sorrow or grief, but really experiencing it."

Accepting what cannot be changed reduces suffering.

The Buddha said that our inability to meet the change that is constantly taking place is the cause of suffering, and a recent study confirmed its truth. 

Researchers at Deakin University in Australia found that the ability to accept what can't be changed was a major predictor of life satisfaction among older adults living in residential care.

Our culture has a tendency to push away and try to compartmentalize death, says Koshin, because it's something that we've come to fear. A woman who was dying of cancer told Koshin that she was struggling not because of her own inability to accept her condition, but because the people around her were so uncomfortable with what was happening that they couldn't just be with her.

But the more intimate we become with death, the more we're able to accept it.

"We need to move into the fear," says Koshin. "We need to say, 'I can be here, I'm scared out of my mind, but I can breathe and be with it.'"

Death reveals the importance of love.

When faced with death, many people say that they learn for the first time what it really means to love -- and that the relationships they've created are the most important things in their lives.

"When they were dying, it was really about whether the people in their life loved them and knew that they were loved by them," says Koshin. "So many of us are running, running, running; achieving, achieving, achieving, and then when it comes down to it, it's really about the relationships and about loving. It's about learning how to love yourself and the world."


Meet the Fantastically Bejeweled Skeletons of Catholicism’s Forgotten Martyrs

Saint Coronatus joined a convent in Heiligkreuztal, Germany, in 1676.

Paul Koudounaris is not a man who shies away from the macabre. Though the Los Angeles-based art historian, author and photographer claims that his fascination with death is no greater than anyone else’s, he devotes his career to investigating and documenting phenomena such as church ossuaries, charnel houses and bone-adorned shrines. Which is why, when a man in a German village approached him during a 2008 research trip and asked something along the lines of, “Are you interested in seeing a dilapidated old church in the forest with a skeleton standing there covered in jewels and holding a cup of blood in his left hand like he’s offering you a toast?” Koudounaris’ answer was, “Yes, of course.”

At the time, Koudounaris was working on a book called The Empire of Death, traveling the world to photograph church ossuaries and the like. He’d landed in this particular village near the Czech border to document a crypt full of skulls, but his interest was piqued by the dubious yet enticing promise of a bejeweled skeleton lurking behind the trees. “It sounded like something from the Brothers Grimm,” he recalls. “But I followed his directions—half thinking this guy was crazy or lying—and sure enough, I found this jeweled skeleton in the woods.”

The church—more of a small chapel, really—was in ruins, but still contained pews and altars, all dilapidated from years of neglect under East German Communist rule. He found the skeleton on a side aisle, peering out at him from behind some boards that had been nailed over its chamber. As he pried off the panels to get a better look, the thing watched him with big, red glass eyes wedged into its gaping sockets. It was propped upright, decked out in robes befitting a king, and holding out a glass vial, which Koudounaris later learned would have been believed to contain the skeleton’s own blood. He was struck by the silent figure’s dark beauty, but ultimately wrote it off as “some sort of one-off freakish thing, some local curiosity.”
But then it happened again. In another German church he visited some time later, hidden in a crypt corner, he found two more resplendent skeletons. “It was then that I realized there’s something much broader and more spectacular going on,” he says.

Koudounaris could not get the figures’ twinkling eyes and gold-adorned grins out of his mind. He began researching the enigmatic remains, even while working on Empire of Death. The skeletons, he learned, were the “catacomb saints,” once-revered holy objects regarded by 16th- and 17th-century Catholics as local protectors and personifications of the glory of the afterlife. Some of them still remain tucked away in certain churches, while others have been swept away by time, forever gone. Who they were in life is impossible to know. “That was part of this project’s appeal to me,” Koudounaris says. “The strange enigma that these skeletons could have been anyone, but they were pulled out of the ground and raised to the heights of glory.”

To create Saint Deodatus in Rheinau, Switzerland, nuns molded a wax face over the upper half of his skull and fashioned his mouth with a fabric wrap.

His pursuit of the bones soon turned into a book project, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, in which he documents the martyred bones’ journey from ancient Roman catacombs to hallowed altars to forgotten corners and back rooms. Though largely neglected by history, the skeletons, he found, had plenty to say.